Let's accept the promise that we need to increase overall state capacity to deliver high-quality vocational education to more students. Short of building more vocational schools – sometimes we should consider that, too – what do we do in the short term to create more opportunities for students?
Here are three ideas to actually guarantee increased voluntary opportunities:
o The state needs to assign sufficient staff to expeditiously review and approve Chapter 74 applications . Chapter 74 of the Massachusetts General Laws governs vocational education. One of the many reasons why voluntary education is so successful in Massachusetts is that Chapter 74 and its implementing regulations have strict standards for program approvals. To ensure integrity in the system, these standards need to stay in place. However, if a voluntary school can demonstrate a clear labor market need for a program and can satisfy all of the other criteria outlined in the law and regulations, why should it wait years to get a program approved? It simply makes no sense. DESE needs to readjust its staffing pattern to focus its efforts on things that count. Approving new high-quality voluntary programs counts.
o The state should develop a grant program to pilot new and innovative approaches for providing additional high-quality vocational education in Massachusetts . As part of the grant application, it must require collaboration between voluntary schools and their academic counterparts. The state needs to put an end to the "us versus them" approach to solving this problem. Vocational schools and non-voluntary schools can – and must – work together to jointly solve the problem. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) can use existing Perkins grant funds – federal money – to create this new grant program. I am not a big fan of throwing money at a problem and I'm not suggesting that we do it in this case. But the voluntary and non-voluntary systems need an incentive to work together. Let's give it to them.
o The state needs to expand and refocus its existing voluntary equipment grant program . At the urging of former Lt. Governor Timothy Murray, the state set aside $ 1 million per year to fund the purchase of equipment for voluntary programs. This equipment grant program has been very successful, but it's too small. It needs to be doubled or tripled in size. And the state needs to change its focus. It needs to give more "weight" to applications that support the creation of new Chapter 74 programs or increase enrollment in existing Chapter 74 programs. Funding to maintain existing programs is fine, but it does nothing to help solve the underlying problem: finding more capacity.